It was a horrifying moment. I was about twelve years old, at church, and following one of the boys upstairs to the back room where the other kids were playing foosball. We were teasing each other, lobbing insults back and forth until, inevitably, a "your momma" joke flew out of my mouth.
It was a really good one. That is, it was. Until I remembered that his mother just recently died.
His face dropped. I collapsed in on myself.
Queue me crawling sheepishly into an early grave. Hand me the shovel, I'll bury myself thanks.
I was mortified.
Since then (though not as tragically), I've found myself in similar situations. The ones where you're not exactly sure of the right thing to say. The ones where you say the stupid thing. Or just stand there speechless and awkward.
Whether it's a lack of experience or empathy, or because my common sense decides to take a smoke break, it happens from time to time. These moments can be really uncomfortable. No one wants to stand face-to-face with someone and have nothing to say to them in their time of need. Or worse, to unintentionally say the hurtful/wrong thing.
Most recently, I stood on the other end of this conundrum. I had a miscarriage, and there were a lot of people who didn't quite know what to say about it. I didn't take personal offense to the unintentional hurtful words because... I get it. I really do. I've been there.
But I think it's a good idea to discuss the helpful, comforting words to say vs. the not-so-helpful, hurtful words to (not) say. Ready?
"It's okay, you're young. You can always have another one."
While the intentions behind this are good, these words hurt. First of all, you can't predict that. You don't know if she'll have kids in the future. There may be some severe complications going on, and she may never birth her own. Not to be gloomy about it, but during my miscarriage, my brain was on overdrive with questions: Am I broken? Why doesn't my body do what it is supposed to do? Is this just one of the "common" miscarriages or is there something really wrong? In the midst of that, it can be painful to hear other people making empty claims/promises about the future of your womb.
Second, even if it is true that she can have another child, it does not minimize the pain of losing this one. That's kind of like saying, "Oh your husband died? It's okay there's plenty of men left. You can just find another one." It doesn't help. It's painful to lose a child; to lose a lifetime of soccer games and prom nights and morning snuggles.
Third, the idea of trying again can be terrifying to some women. It may take time for her to heal and build up enough courage to give it another go. Let her grieve and feel the loss of this child before mentioning the idea of another one.
"You know, it's really common. It happens all the time."
You know what? So does death. Death is really common. Death happens all the time. In fact, recent studies have found that 10 out of 10 human lives end in death.
Sarcasm aside: just because death is common, it doesn't make it any less painful. You would (hopefully) never say to someone who just lost a father, "it's okay. it happens all the time" because, while true, it isn't comforting or helpful. It's no different with a miscarriage. Sure, it is good to be aware that early miscarriage is common so no one freaks out and thinks something is abnormally amiss, but that's about all that comment is good for. To her, she didn't simply join a statistic; she didn't buy a losing lottery ticket. She lost her child. Pointing out that it's common does not honor her unique loss.
"Well, it's a good thing you were only # weeks along."
I understand the thought process behind this comment. If the baby wasn't fully formed yet, that means you didn't really lose a baby, right? Maybe. It depends on the mother and how she sees the beginning of life. Every woman believes differently. But the point is, no matter what the woman believes about the beginning of life, it is not your place to inform her that she should feel relieved because she was only # weeks along.
"I'm so sorry."
Yep. That simple. Saying that you're sorry and then leaving it at that, or offering a hug, or offering to bring a meal etc. can say to a woman, "what you're going through is no small thing. I see you, and I'm not going to try to make it all better because I can't, but I'm sorry and I'm here for you."
Or, you can just say that.
Can I bring dinner/chocolate/movies/ice cream?
Yes. Yes you can. (and then leave unless she asks you to stay.)
"I can't imagine your loss" (If you have no idea what it feels like to lose a child)
or, "me too. I'm here for you. I understand." (if you've had a miscarriage before)
Nothing is more frustrating than someone who has no clue trying to pretend that they have some sort of clue. If you have never experienced a miscarriage, just be up front about how little you understand. Tell her that you know she's hurting and that even though you can't relate, you want to be a good friend to her. It's comforting to simply have your pain acknowledged.
If you are a woman who has had a miscarriage (or a man who knows the pain of losing a child), reach out! Nothing was more comforting to me during the initial shock of miscarriage than the dozens of messages I received from other women who had walked a similar road. Offer advice, tell your story, listen to her story, or just give her a safe place to cry and be angry. Make yourself known to her. The comfort of knowing she's not alone can go a long way.
"Grieve however YOU need to grieve. Your feelings are valid."
There is no timeline for grief. There is no "you should be fine by now" day. Every woman will process at her own pace. It is important that you let her move through her grief in whatever way she needs to. Tell her it's acceptable and okay for her to be feeling whatever she feels (even if you don't understand).
"I'm here to listen whenever you want to talk."
When she's ready, she'll need a safe and listening ear. Think: Sitting Shiva, a Jewish tradition meant to simply be with those who are grieving in the midst of their grief. As with any kind of suffering, you can't change what happened or fix what was broken, but offering a safe place where she can vent, cry, or just be can truly go a long way in her healing process.